Anglers who fish the upper Pembina River system, including the Pembina River and tributaries upstream of Lodgepole, Alberta, may have been surprised to learn of a five year closure to all fishing activities, starting in 2016. The closure, called a Recovery Rest Period, was implemented by Alberta Environment and Parks (Fisheries Management) as a tool to help recover the Arctic Grayling population within this watershed. This is the first time the Province has implemented a closure of this kind.
The Pembina River supports the southern most population of native Arctic Grayling in Alberta, but population numbers in this watershed have dropped significantly over time, and all but a
select few stream stocks have been eliminated. The watershed also supports Bull trout and Mountain Whitefish, both native species, as well as non-native Brook Trout. Land use within the upper Pembina watershed includes forestry, coal mining, oil and gas exploration and extraction, and recreation.
From 2011 to 2015, the Northern Lights Fly Fishers (Edmonton Chapter of Trout Unlimited Canada) has been active in the watershed in helping provincial fishery managers gain a better understanding of the current status of the Arctic Grayling population and habitat conditions. Chapter volunteers have invested many hours into angling surveys, fish tagging, temperature monitoring, posting educational signage and stream crossing assessments. Support for this work has been provided by the Alberta Conservation Association as well as Golder Associates and Alberta Environment and Parks.
In 2014 the Chapter was recognized for this important work and awarded the National Recreational Fisheries Award by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
It is a unique irony that the very method for collecting valuable fishery data during recent years, will not be permitted, even for research purposes, for the next five years. Clearly, the decision to restrict angling for five years is not taken lightly and comes with mixed reactions. On one hand, this is disappointing to the many volunteers that have been actively involved in the angling project as well as other anglers in the watershed. On the other hand, it is positive to see the provincial government take bold action to protect a species at risk, based on the data these volunteers have provided. Some anglers likely feel as though they are being punished for the decline in numbers of Arctic Grayling when in reality there are a multitude of other threats facing this species. However, even catch and release angling can result in accidental or “hooking” mortality, even by the most seasoned and careful angler. Even a low capture mortality rate can negatively impact a badly depleted population and delay the recovery of a population. And unfortunately, fishing regulations is the only “lever” that provincial Fisheries Management can pull. Although Fisheries Management works to influence other resource management decisions, they do not have the mandate or legislative authority to enact closures or moratoriums on other activities.
Now what? We have been assured that Fisheries Management is working closely with the Alberta Energy Regulator and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to ensure that industry contributes to Arctic Grayling recovery as well. Trout Unlimited Canada recognizes this may be a tough pill to swallow for the anglers of the upper Pembina River system, and believes the significance of this closure should not be understated. If after five years, the watershed assessment work that Fisheries Management is committed to doing points out that there has been no significant change to the population, it shows that angling may not represent a significant problem and creates a stronger sense of urgency for other “levers” to be pulled. Additionally, the lessons learned through this project can also be applied to other watersheds supporting fish species at risk. Alberta’s native salmonids, including not just Arctic Grayling, but also Westslope Cutthroat Trout, Bull Trout, and Athabasca Rainbow Trout are all under serious threat and it will take bold and decisive actions to begin recovering these species. We need to consider
that we are not just dealing with threatened species but threatened and endangered habitat along Alberta’s eastern slopes region.
In 2016, the Northern Lights Fly Fishers installed two stationary antenna arrays along the stream to learn more about the movement patterns of Arctic Grayling that were tagged in previous years during the angling study. For more on these results, click here.
Trout Unlimited Canada staff and the Northern Lights Fly Fishers Chapter will continue a dialogue with Alberta Environment and Parks over the coming months and years to provide input on future activities relating to the closure and ultimately recovery of Arctic Grayling. We are concerned that the population could continue to decline during the Recovery Rest Period and we will be advocating for land-use changes to protect critical habitat as well as monitoring and assessment work to drive future management decisions.
For more information please read the Recovery Rest Period brochure.